Pulling for Macarons

Every fall, friends of ours in Victoria hold a party where all the adults are put to work transforming thousands of pounds of apples into cider. The apples are sorted and washed then passed through a hand-cranked mill and pulped. The bottles are cleaned and filled with juice. Everyone gets drenched with sweat. Meanwhile, the children soak themselves bobbing for apples from a kiddie-pool. A decade into the twenty-first century, this agricultural tradition remains a sweet pleasure for North American children.

But without a doubt, my daughter would give it up for the opportunity to follow Parisian traditions instead and tir aux macarons. Eleven-year old Cunningham Drake, a New York boy who lived in Paris during 1845, translated this game in the pages of his diary as “pulling for macarons.” On festival days in Paris, pulling for macarons was Cunningham’s greatest joy.

When I came across Cunningham Drake’s account I felt like I had pulled a macaron! Historians are always on the lookout for anecdotal gems, the small details that can bring the larger argument to life. How better to encapsulate the differences between mid-nineteenth century American and Parisian food cultures than with a comparison between these two children’s games? Between the rustic simplicity of the apple and the confectionary sophistication of the macaron?

I don’t know if they still tir aux macarons in Paris. My daughter hopes so.

August 1, 2013 update: I was speaking with a Parisian two nights ago, and he informed me that people in the city no longer tir aux macarons, but they do play the same game with apples: proof that Parisians and Americans are not so different after all.

Author: Rachel Hope Cleves

Professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Author of Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America (2009). My new book about the notorious writer, Norman Douglas, will be out in October 2020. Now working on a project titled "Good Food, Bad Sex."

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